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FRFI 210 August / September 2009

Housing: Labour sets racist agenda

As the economic crisis intensifies, the Labour government is stoking the fires of racism. In a sinister echo of his call for ‘British jobs for British workers’, on 29 June  Prime Minister Gordon Brown demanded ‘British homes for British families’. BARNABY MITCHELL reports.

The Labour Party’s relaunch document, Building Britain’s Future, says the government will ‘change the current rules for allocating council and other social housing, enabling local authorities to give more priority to local people and those who have spent a long time on a waiting list’, fuelling the lie that ‘local [ie white] people’ are being forced out of social rented housing by migrants, asylum seekers and others. In reality, local authority waiting lists already prioritise people with a local connection. Brown’s announcement is a piece of classic Labour demagoguery, pandering to racist concerns about immigration that was seized on with glee by sections of the media: Writing in the Daily Mail on 30 June, Andrew Green, chair of the racist think tank Migration Watch, claimed that ‘white working class people were indeed being leapfrogged by new arrivals with large families’. On 2 July, the Daily Express ranted about the ‘socialists’’ long-held discrimination in housing against ‘the indigenous population’.

In 2007 Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking and Dagenham, called for ‘indigenous’ people to be given priority over migrants to housing and public services. In January 2009, then Communities Secretary Hazel Blears called for ‘white working class grievances’ to be heard, with Labour MP Frank Field adding: ‘Hazel Blears says that people on council estates feel ignored. That is exactly our point. And not only on council estates – 80% of the public want to see a substantial reduction in immigration, but the government refuses to address the issue.’ And, in words that would not have been out of place on a BNP leaflet, he continued:
‘If Labour wants to influence the outcome of the next general election, it had better start addressing white working-class concern about immigration, not simply reporting on it.’

As the housing crisis deepens, Labour is increasingly worried about losing voters to overtly fascist parties such as the BNP and UKIP. It peddles lies and misinformation to cover up the truth: that the housing crisis is entirely of its making and that housing practice in this country is racist and discriminatory.

Debunking the lies
The truth is that both today and historically, migrants live in the worst housing conditions. 90% of those living in England who arrived in the last two years live in the private rented sector, often in substandard housing. Figures published on 8 July by the Equality and Human Rights Commission showed conclusively that only 1.8 per cent of those who have migrated to Britain in the last five years currently have access to council housing, with 87.8 per cent being let to those born in the UK.

For many migrant workers, accommodation is provided by employers, employment agencies or gang masters, with rent generally subtracted from their wages. If these workers lose their jobs they become homeless. A Trades Union Congress survey published in September 2007 claimed that migration has reintroduced the ‘tied cottage’ into the British labour market. Individuals reported that they had little control over working excessive hours because their employment was linked to their accommodation, and more than half of those who described their living conditions as poor or very poor were in accommodation provided through their employer. In some cases, conditions are so bad that they meet internationally agreed definitions of forced labour. (No place like home discussion paper, Shelter, October 2008)

Far from ‘jumping the queue’, asylum seekers have no rights to mainstream housing or benefits at all, and are provided for under an entirely separate system run by the Home Office, often ending up housed in the worst possible accommodation. There is also increasing evidence of destitution among migrants and according to the official government street count figures for rough sleepers in July 2008, 20 per cent of rough sleepers are now migrants from the EU.

Not only migrants, but black and minority ethnic (BME) groups overall face disproportionate levels of homelessness and housing problems. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) ethnic minority households are roughly three times more likely to become statutorily homeless than the majority white population. DCLG research into overcrowding also shows that BME groups are significantly more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, especially in London. For white people the national rate of overcrowding is 1.8 per cent, but for BME groups it is 11 per cent. In London the rate for white people rises to 4 per cent, and for BME groups to 13 per cent.

Racist propaganda about preferential access to housing is therefore based on a vicious and divisive lie.

Crisis of affordable housing
In the current housing crisis, there is no shortage of houses per se – the last 10 years have witnessed a construction boom. However under capitalism, housing is a commodity built for exchange on the open market. Housing is allocated by the market, not on the basis of need. in England alone approximately 720,000 properties stand empty, over 80% of which are in the private sector. The housing crisis is not a crisis of  supply – it’s a crisis of distribution.

During times of economic prosperity and rising house prices, property speculation was a route to wealth for the middle classes as Labour encouraged ever wider swathes of the population to share in the joys of a property-owning democracy. Privatisation, right to buy, cheap loans and mortgages, key worker schemes – sections of the working class were assisted to get their feet on the housing ladder with the promise of security. With the credit crunch, it is a dream that has turned sour for many; for thousands, redundancy or wage cuts bring the threat of repossession (there were 142,743 repossession orders issued in 2008, the highest since 1991) and eviction, and ever greater pressure on the rented housing market.

This is exacerbating the problem that decades of attacks on council housing and continuing privatisation by both Conservative and Labour governments have resulted in a massive shortage of affordable housing in the UK. In the 1950s local authorities built as many as 245,000 units a year. In the 21st century, in some years as few as 60 council houses were completed across the country. Access to the council housing which remains is rationed according to need. Today demand far outstrips supply and unless you are actually homeless, have multiple social problems, disabilities and dependent children you may well be destined to sit forever on a local authority waiting list with little hope of ever securing a social housing tenancy; it is estimated that five million people will be on the waiting list for social housing by 2012. The London borough of Islington, where housing is run by an Arms Length Management Company (ALMO), will complete only 10 new council houses this summer, but has a waiting list of 15,000 for social housing. The Labour government has tried to use different means to ration council housing: in early 2008, the then Housing Minister Caroline Flint suggested that unemployed people in council housing could risk losing their homes if they couldn’t prove that they were looking for work. By the end of the year, as the crisis really hit home, her replacement, Margaret Beckett was considering proposals that there should be means tests for council tenants and periodic reviews of tenants’ financial situations. Should their income exceed a certain level, they should either pay a higher rent or be ‘encouraged’ to move into the private sector.

Homeless numbers have jumped by 15% in the last year. Broadway charity for the homeless has shown that 4,672 rough sleepers were counted in the capital, up from 4,077 last year. 60% were UK nationals. This figure is likely to increase as young people who refuse a job or training offer have their benefits cut under Labour’s new proposals.

Under Labour’s Building Britain’s Future proposals, local authorities will be allowed to retain rent from council housing and receipts from right-to-buy purchasers, rather than the money going to the Treasury. However, this extra money will result in a mere 20,000 extra homes being built over the next two years, of which only 3,000 will be council housing. Much of the rest will be part-rent/part-buy which is too expensive for the majority of those on the housing waiting lists. A survey published in April by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment revealed that 83% of affordable housing schemes were judged of average or poor design quality. Since then, on 6 July, the government promised funding for an extra 139,000 ‘affordable’ homes over the next decade, but given that currently, despite government pledges in 2007 for an extra 70,000 affordable homes a year by 2010-11. only 56,450 dwellings (of which only 13,500 will be council housing) are now likely to be built, only time will tell whether this is just more New Labour hot air.

Dividing the working class
As the economic crisis intensifies, the British ruling class and its representatives in the Labour government are intensifying their scapegoating of migrants and minorities and the policy of divide and rule of the working class. As living standards are cut and increasing numbers of people are faced with insecurity and poverty, the state and ruling class need to ensure that anger is channelled not at its cause, a capitalist system in crisis and the ruthless exploitation of workers, but instead at migrants and minorities.

The grievances of working class people about the lack of decent housing, poverty wages, increased crime etc are a direct result of Labour and Tory government policies which have attacked working class living conditions for decades and subsidised the middle and millionaire classes.
Socialists and campaigners need to fight to dispel the racist myths surrounding the shortage of decent housing for working class people and turn all the anger and resentment against the Labour government and their property speculating friends.

We should learn from the example of the squatters who occupied the empty home of Labour MPs Ann and Alan Keene, aka ‘Mr and Mrs Expenses’. The squatters made the point: ‘We want to get back something that has been taken from us in the expenses scandal. There are 10,000 people on the housing waiting list in Hounslow alone – and people like the Keenes are spending our money on keeping houses empty.

‘Everyone who needs housing should occupy empty buildings, but as Ann Keene voted in favour of the war in Iraq, the house will hopefully become a refugee centre and home to some of the people she made homeless through poverty and war.’